By Bill Demchak
Nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability. Here in the Pittsburgh region, where my company is headquartered, that works out to about half a million of our neighbors, family, friends and coworkers who face a physical or mental challenge. More than 300,000 of those individuals are working-age adults, yet fewer than 20 percent participate in the labor force and, for those who do, the unemployment rate is more than double the rate for people without disabilities.
That’s just Pittsburgh; the story is the same in the other 35 markets where PNC does business – places like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Birmingham and Minneapolis. It’s true, as well, in New York, Los Angeles and virtually every community in between. It’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, yet it has far-reaching implications for employers, civic and community leaders, social services providers, and families all across the country.
Tens of thousands of individuals with disabilities who have dropped out of the labor force are capable of working. But misunderstanding, stereotypes and a lack of access to opportunity have made it difficult or impossible for many to find employment.
Among those who are employed, many worry that their opportunities for advancement will be limited by perceptions about their disabilities and their capacity to make meaningful contributions. And many of those whose disabilities are not obvious — whether they suffer from a disease like multiple sclerosis or a mental disorder such as clinical depression — fear that if they are open about their disabilities with their employers, they will see their career progression grind to a halt.
Those concerns are not unfounded. Misperceptions about disability have given rise to dozens of stereotypes and myths that groups such as the American Association of People with Disabilities have been fighting for years to debunk.
Here in Pittsburgh, I’m proud of the work we’re doing to shine a light on this issue.
In recent years, we at PNC have partnered with other local business and civic leaders to host multiple forums focused on the importance of opening pathways to employment for people with disabilities. A three-day Disability Employment Awareness Summit brought together employers from across the region to hear from national experts and talk about best practices. The Summit also featured a career showcase where individuals with disabilities and their advocates met employers, learned about the industries that make up our regional economy, and could explore potential job opportunities and resources to support their career development.
Additionally, PNC and other local companies have continued to raise awareness by hosting students with disabilities for job shadowing and mentoring with an eye toward preparing our workforce of the future. It’s been rewarding on a number of levels, and I’d go so far as to say that we learn as much from them about their capabilities as they learn from us about their career options.
Disability employment is personal for me. My older brother, Brian, was born with a disability, but with support from ACHIEVA, an organization that serves more than 14,500 individuals with disabilities and their families here in southwestern Pennsylvania, he was able to live a full and mostly independent life. Brian passed away last year, but during his life, ACHIEVA helped Brian to join the working world; he knew he was making a meaningful contribution, and his life was richer for it.
So, this is an issue about which I’m personally passionate, but that’s just one reason I believe so strongly that we must do all we can to enable people with disabilities to reach their full potential.
From a workforce planning perspective, this is a critical effort for the economic well-being of our regional economies. Employers in Pittsburgh and in many other markets are struggling today to find the skilled workers we need to fill the jobs we have available. That problem will only become more pronounced as baby boomers continue to retire in the years to come.
As chief executive of one of Pittsburgh’s largest employers and one of the largest banks in the U.S., I can’t stress enough the importance of this discussion. It is imperative that business leaders recognize the capabilities of individuals with disabilities, that we commit to making reasonable accommodations where necessary, that we work to eliminate – once and for all – the stigma attached to disability, and that we clear the way of barriers that have previously prevented so many qualified individuals from making the contributions they are capable of making in spite of their disabilities.
Anything less is a disservice to our communities and, ultimately, to our shareholders as we work to field the best, most-capable teams of talented employees to compete and win in the marketplace.
Bill Demchak is chairman, president and chief executive officer of The PNC Financial Services Group. For more information about PNC, visit www.pnc.com.